Category Archives: jacks corner

CCI Director, Jack Petranker offers reflections and occasional insights into our current situation as a culture and as individuals trying to make our way in the world.

Gaming the Mind — On Memory and Mindsets

cat-and-ratA few days ago I tried to remember the name of an old friend. Nothing came.

Most of us have  had this kind of experience. In psychology, it’s call a tip-of-the-tongue experience.

This time, though, I noticed another layer. I knew that I knew the name. I was confident that it would ‘come to me’ (whatever that really means). But I also knew that this knowledge was ‘buried’ deep in my mind; that it would probably take at least a day or two for it to emerge into conscious awareness. And indeed, that is exactly what happened. Two days later, it was there.

Look at all the questions this raises. How did I know that I knew, even though at the moment I could not access that knowing? And how did I know that the knowledge was buried deep? Finally, how did I set the retrieval process in motion?

Here is a tentative description, based on how it seemed to me at the time. The name made sense in a certain context, one that was far removed from my current concerns. I had to launch a probe–not to make my way into that unknown land, but to reshape my current reality so that it would expand to include a territory to which it now lacks access, but which is somehow still ‘on the radar’.

Here’s an analogy. See the cats and the rat above? It will come as no surprise to anyone that rats ordinarily have a fear response to cat odors. But there’s a parasite called T. gondii that finds its way into rat brains; when it does, it somehow alters the brain so that instead of being sent into panic mode when it smells a cat, the poor manipulated rat feels sexual attraction. Result: the rat draws near and gets eaten by the cat.

Which is just what the parasite is after, because it turns out it can only reproduce inside a cat’s digestive system. That’s how it gets on with the business of surviving. Scientists have no idea how it works.

Something similar is happening when I launch my probe into the known unknown–the unremembered memory. Somehow, I am going to change the shape of my known world. And I know, with a fair degree of certainty, that it’s going to work. I can even predict how long the process will take. But I still don’t how. As with our friend T. Gondii, it’s a mystery, even if we do mostly take it for granted.

Let’s expand this out. My mind has its patterns. Suppose I want to change them, to expand the range of possibilities open to me. Can I launch a probe to do that? Is that how inquiry into experience works?  Set a question turning in my mind, not just an idle question that doesn’t probe very deep or travel very far, but a question Icare about–a question that matters to me. After a while, the mind itself is changed, and new knowledge emerges. Maybe not as hard as we sometimes think.


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Trail of Tears: Pilgrimage without a goal

I’m back from a three-day trip to New York, where I presented Guna Foundation’s excellent new film, The Great Transmission, at the Rubin Museum of Himalayan Art. Unusually for me, I took a day off. I had no special plan to follow—just some recommendations from friends—but by the time events had fallen into place, I had discovered an emerging theme. That’s what I’ll write about here.

I started the day by walking the Highline, a new “elevated park” developed along the tracks of an abandoned railway line. This little stretch of green winds in and out among the buildings of lower Manhattan for more than a mile. It’s immediately appealing, and New York has taken it to heart.


Along the Highline

Toward the beginning of the walk, I came across a sound installation by the artist Susan Philipz: a number of loudspeakers that droned out sad and somewhat unsettling sounds. The accompanying signage explained that it was part of a group exhibition called Wanderlust “that explores the themes of walking, journeys, and pilgrimages, inspired by the High Line as an ambulatory space.” This particular installation, called Lachrimae, is based on “the image of a single falling tear.” The sounds were meant to accompany visitors as they walked along the Hudson River, glimpsed now and then to the west.

So there we have the start of the theme. A tear flows, and although the Highline itself is a happy place, I found myself thinking of how my walk snaked through the lives of countless people, each with his or her own forms of personal suffering. We are all  on our own pilgrimage, but if the pilgrimage has no destination, no sense of arriving at what might be transcendent, what can there be but tears?

That evening I presented The Great Transmission, and the next day I caught up on work and met with friends. But in the evening, I went to a play that had been recommended to me, called Small Mouth Sounds. It’s a play about six people who go on a silent retreat. At one point the invisible teacher tells a story: Life, he says is like being born on an ocean. You sail out into the vast and beautiful ocean . . . and then the boat sinks. A journey to nowhere; water that invites only loss. The Ocean: the play ends with an evocation of that image, a single word, haltingly spoken into the gap where communication has failed .

The next morning, the end of my trip approaching, I took the subway down to the 9/11 Memorial at the World Trade Center. I didn’t know what to expect, but what I found was two massive black granite pools, with the names of those who lost their lives etched on the sides, and beyond, water flowing, sheeting down into darkness, at the bottom of the pool: a journey into sorrow and loss, a water fall, leading into an ocean of emptiness.


So that was it; that was what I had sketched out in my head to write for this blog. But the next day—back now in California, having made a quick journey to the other world of our Odiyan Country Center, where pilgrimage means something very different, and my room overlooks a pond—I  learn that there has been a bombing in Manhattan, just a few blocks from where I walked on the Highline, and the theme takes on a different weightiness. We are all on a pilgrimage, a journey where tears flow and lives end. A journey with no end . . .  but can there be a new beginning?

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Who says reason is everything?

Image result for emotions reason

There’s an essay in today’s New York Times by a philosopher named Robert Burton on how we all seek meaning in life, and how this relates to our reliance on reason. Early in the essay, he writes, “a visceral sense of meaning in one’s life is an involuntary mental state that, like joy or disgust, is independent from and resistant to the best of arguments.”

What a remarkable claim! If it’s not grounded in reason, your sense of meaning is just a gut feeling, something you produce involuntarily. Burton goes all in: “Reason provides an after-the-fact explanation for moral decisions that are preceded by inherently reflexive positive or negative feelings.” It’s just a short step to the old arguments about how free will is an illusion—which in fact is where he goes.

The flaw here is assuming that the mind is nothing more than a machine for generating rational arguments. Interfere with the workings of the machine, and you get sub-optimal performance. A sense of meaning is caused  by one of those malfunctions. It’s philosophically uninteresting.

What’s missing here is a sense that there’s more to the workings of the mind than reason on the one hand and gut feelings on the other. It reminds me of the recent kid’s movie Inside Out, where we are introduced to a twelve-year old’s mind and find anger, fear, disgust, sadness, and joy.

Is that it? What about loyalty, compassion, love, kindness? To name a few.

But I’m not trying to push a particular psychology. My point is that philosophy sells itself short when it becomes the noble defender of reason keeping the emotions and other nasty visceral feelings at bay. Philosophy is about who we are and what makes us tick. It has its own ways of asking those questions that have nothing to do with it’s kid sister, psychology. If it buys into a kind of simple-minded either/or way of thinking, it misses its calling.

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“I would rather not”

There’s an article in this Sunday’s NY Times called “The Useless Machine.” It’s about a battery-operated machine that ‘s just a box with a lever. Flip the lever, and the machine whirs, the lid opens, and a small hand comes out and flips the lever to the off position. That’s it. Here’s a picture.

box image

And here’s a link to a video demonstration:

As it happens, I’ve been intrigued by this little device for years. The author of the article, Mark O’Connell, likes what he calls its “patient defiance,” its point-blank refusal to bend to human wishes. But I think of it as a metaphor for the self. When we question our own workings; when we challenge the patterns we use to take our stand in the world, the self resists. “Do not bother me,” says the self, rousing itself just enough to cut off further inquiry. “You,” it seems to say, “would look to see how I operate. I will not cooperate.” Case closed.

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Jack’s Corner

Jack Petranker is Founder and Director of the Center for Creative Inquiry and the author of When It Rains, Does Space Get Wet? (Dharma Publishing 2006). He offers classes, retreats, and online programs, and explores ways to transform the ways of thinking and knowing that have led us to our present predicaments.

The reflections found here offer occasional insights into our current situation as a culture and as individuals trying to make our way in the world.

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Anfrage an Jack

Lieber Jack,

ich nehme an dem 2-jährigen TSK-online -Kurs teil.

z.Zt. habe ich keinen Zugang zu den phone-calls: sorry….. , obwohl ich ordnungsgemäß angemeldet bin, natürlich auch bezahlt habe. Ich werde mich an Kathleen wenden.

Meine Frage an Dich: Gibt es eine Möglichkeit, meine “Hausaufgaben” an einen Mentor zu senden, der deutsch versteht? Ich könnte in deutsch schreiben, er oder sie könnte auf englisch antworten. An der 45-minuten online class nehme ich jeweils im Nachhinein teil. Meine direkten Reaktionen nehmen zu viel Zeit in Anspruch. Die Class-Diskussionen nehmen auch zu viel Zeit in Anspruch. Die Übersetzungsarbeit ist für mich mühsam.

Für eine kurze Antwort wäre ich dankbar.

Mit herzlichem Gruß,


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What Is/Am I?

There’s a nice little video on the web at that shows a number of well-known philosophers–Dan Dennett, Sue Blackmore, and others–giving a one-sentence answer to the question, “What are you?” Each of them, good natured, answers, “I am . . .” Most of them take the view that as individuals they are constructs created by various sub-agents (Dennett and Blackmore both want ‘memes’ to be given  most of the credit). The whole video (which plugs someone’s book, by the way), is under three minutes long, and I recommend watching it.

Still, the answers left me dissatisfied. My hunch is that the question is wrongly put. Ask, “What are you?” and you get back an answer that necessarily refers to an equivalence between ‘I’ and this or that existing thing or things.  “I can be reduced to a set of memes and genes.” Or, “I am an animal.” Or, in the words of a short story I read once, “Of this time, of that place, of such a parentage . . . no matter?”

The villain here–the source of the dissatisfaction–is the “am.” Ask instead, “What is I?” and a wider field of possibilities open up. Is ‘I’ an existent thing? Is it a concept? Is it a named set of properties, characteristics, and capacities, linked across time? Is it a story (and if so, who tells it?)

If they had turned the video camera on me, what would I have said? Hard to say, but here is one possible answer, after some limited amount of reflection: ‘I’ is an identifier that labels an ongoing set of perceptions, reactions, and labels that refer back and forth to each other in ways that implicate a certain set of temporal structures.

A bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? Let me try again. ‘I’ is a word that points to nothing in particular, but that organizes experience in what( for me and no one else) are instantly recognizable ways.

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Creative Aliveness in Daily Life

Many years ago, I did a little bit of local community theater acting, and even did a class or two. It was around the time that I had started studying meditation, and it often struck me that the acting exercises we did had a lot in common with sitting meditation.

I was reminded of that when I listened to an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air with the novelist, playwright, and actor Ayad Akhtar (the interview aired on January 17; you can find it at, and the part that interested me starts at 24:10.)

Akhtar studied with some major acting teachers, including Jerzy Grotowski. The interviewer, Terry Gross, asks him whether the exercises he did with Grotowski were related to Akhtar’s religious interests. His answer is great; The short answer, he says, is “yes,” but the more interesting answer is “no.”

Why this split? Because Grotowski felt that yoga and meditation were intended to help people withdraw from the world, whereas his exercises (based on yoga, but much more active) trained actors to engage the world wholly.

Now, Grotowski was clearly no expert on meditation, and this distinction is way too simplistic. But it does help make a point about Creative Inquiry. The aim in Creative Inquiry is to be wholly present to experience and the knowledge it carries. And the key insight that makes this possible is that at every level, the present is much more than we think it to be. How do you activate this expanded, richer, more immediate, and more meaningful present? That is what Creative Inquiry is about.

Any actors out there who would like to weigh in?

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Can you inhabit a concept? On creative inquiry.

Most of our education, at least in the school system, happens at the conceptual level. So the question arises: what does it mean to learn a concept? I’m not trained in the theory of education, but my sense is that learning concepts is regarded as being similar to learning a foreign language. To learn the language, you learn the vocabulary and grammar and how to manipulate them. To learn a concept, you learn its content and how it interacts with other concepts.

Of course, that’s not a very accurate model, either for languages or for concepts. Learning vocabulary and grammar for a new language is a good start, but you’ll learn a lot more once you start to read authors who write in that language; even better, when you go in live in a country where that’s the native tongue. The same holds for concepts: you learn what they mean when you inhabit them.

What I mean by this is that you need to engage the concept, to make it your own. A simple, partial example is when a set of statistics is expressed in graphic form. The visual image lets the numbers become part of your world, at least in a limited way. Through the image, the information the numbers convey enter the world that you inhabit, and in that sense they become part of that inhabited world.

This concept of inhabiting seems to me key (which is why I’m trying to get you to inhabit it). It’s like reading a novel. A good novelist presents a richly detailed world, or at least a richly detailed scene. You can read those details in a distanced, abstract way, taking note of their meaning without really engaging them. Or you can also read those details in a way that lets you enter the world of the novel. Here’s an example chosen at random from a novel I have on my Kindle at the moment:

The next morning . . . my wife and I had one of those fights that are entirely unnecessary, in which everyone is simply reciting lines scripted by their worst impulses, a dull sequel to old fights, a dull prologue to later fights, a DVD frozen on the same stupid mid-blink face of a normally good-looking actor.

Do you see how you can read this passage in one of two ways? You can simply tick off the images as you read, making sure you understand them so that you can go on reading. But you can also get absorbed in them, one at a time, so that they come alive for you, so that you inhabit them: the lines scripted by your worst impulses; the image of mid-blink stupidity, and so on. Only this second approach is going to let you appreciate the work of the author and engage the world of the novel. Of course, it will take more time and more effort. If the novel speaks to you, that extra effort will seem worthwhile. In fact, the extra effort is inseparable from what it means to ‘appreciate’ the novel, to let it grow within you.

The same thing holds true for a concept. Suppose you are reading an argument in favor of a certain position. You have to follow the argument step by step, in light of the larger issues at stake. It’s like rolling a mouthful of wine in your mouth to get the full flavor. You might think it’s enough to get the logic of the argument, the way the pieces fit together, but it’s not: that’s the Cliff Notes version. You have to try the argument on for size. You have to become the one making the argument, to inhabit the world where that argument holds. In the end you may reject the argument, but even rejecting it depends on having first engaged it fully.

The concept is the gateway to a world, the world in which that concept matters. Your responsibility is to inhabit that world. When you do, you learn something that you will learn in no other way.You learn what it means to hold that concept as being true.

The word “education” literally refers to “leading/drawing out.” But you draw out the meaning of something by entering it. You “e-duce” by “in-ducing.” That may sound like word play, but in truth I’m trying gesture toward a style of inquiry that goes way beyond words.

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The Cult of Experience — Is It Dangerous?

I’m teaching a course right now for Mangalam Research Center on the Rhetoric of Experience and its relation to the practice of meditation. This has me thinking a lot about experience.

There is something like a “cult of experience” in our culture. In large measure it traces to the Romantic movement, but one finds it in pragmatism also; it seems the term “cult of experience” was coined by the literary critic Philip Rahv. Martin Jay’s book, Songs of Experience, is the indispensable resource.

But we don’t need to rely on intellectual history or the analysis of literature to get a sense of this; we see it all around us all the time. We have learned to crave a certain intensity or newness of experience (consider scary movies, or the kinds of stories people tell about their travels.) There is a sense that our lives have become routine, shaped by habit and a culture that moves inexorably toward sameness, and we need to escape. In Rome, the word ‘vacation’ referred to the empty days, the days when nothing of interest was going on (no religious festivals, mostly, I have read). Now, of course, the reverse is true.

This same impulse helps shape our meditation. We meditate in order to get in touch with our immediate experience, not distorted or dulled by the labels and identities we assign. Experience is our gateway to the true, the real, and the authentic.

All this surely has value, but I can’t help wondering if something is missing. Experiences are experiences for a self, and if the self is the one who gets to enjoy them and suck the juice out of them, what does that mean for the broader aim—shared in all meditative and spiritual traditions—to challenge the always-vacationing self and its demands?

When we make special experiences our goal, we don’t need to ask difficult questions about what is real and ultimately meaningful. If I have a powerful religious experience, for instance, the experience provides its own justification. Questions about the relation between my experience and the deepest truths of my own nature need never arise.

This is not the place to explore in depth, but I wonder: if we privilege our experiences just because of the ‘special’ way they feel, are we reinforcing the claims of the self who has those experiences? Are we cutting short an inquiry into the nature of what is most real and most meaningful?

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